Nick Rotella scientist engineer developer

About Me

I'm a robotics software engineer and research scientist currently working at Ainstein on sensor fusion and sensor-based control; my work is highly multidisciplinary and involves using RADAR, LIDAR, cameras and other sensors for autonomous applications, including drones and self-driving vehicles. In 2018, I completed my PhD in Computer Science in the Computational Learning and Motor Control (CLMC) Lab at the University of Southern California, in collaboration with the Autonomous Motion Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems. My research focused on solving a broad range of problems in humanoid robotics; you can read about it in my thesis, Estimation-Based Control for Humanoid Robots.

Prior to defending my thesis, I earned a M.Sc. degree in Computer Science with a specialization in Intelligent Robotics from USC in 2014. My undergraduate studies earned me a B.Sc. degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis on control systems from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 2012. Having spent the summer of 2011 performing computational neuroscience research in the Joe Francis Lab at SUNY Downstate, I decided to pursue graduate studies in robotics as the field combined my interests in neuroscience and mechatronics.


My research interests encompass model identification, dynamics simulations, sensor fusion, model predictive planning and optimization-based control for complex systems, with a focus on efficient implementations for use on real robots. In addition to the publications my collaborators and I have authored, I spent a significant portion of my PhD working to improve our locomotion codebase and develop general-purpose controllers for balancing and walking on real robots.

A Quadratic Program-Based Inverse Dynamics

Robust Joystick-Based Walking Controller

I've worked with high-bandwith, torque-controlled humanoid robots to develop realtime-safe estimation, planning and control algorithms which were evaluated in simulation and tested on a 17 DOF humanoid. My work has involved everything from low-level embedded motor controller, device driver and networking programming to high-level optimization-based planning and whole body control; I strive to understand and interact with complex systems at every level.


During my undergraduate education, I was able to take interdisciplinary courses in computational neuroscience which helped spark my interest in and support for multidisciplinary education and research. I went on to serve as a teaching assistant for these courses, as well as for a SURP-like summer program for area high school students. These roles involved both teaching concepts and supervising short-term research projects.

While I did not have the opportunity to TA again during my PhD studies, I guest lectured on a number of occasions for the graduate-level course Introduction to Robotics (CSCI 545) as well as supported departmental outreach efforts including the well-attended USC Robotics Open House.

As a strong believer in open-access education, I also spent considerable effort compiling a collection of lecture notes on a variety of robotics-related topics, including mathematical fundamentals (calculus, linear algebra, statistics), control theory, kinematics and dynamics, and so on. I continue to draw from these in my current industrial work and add to them via blog posts on this site.

Since finishing my PhD, I have volunteered time as a TA for the TEALS K-12 computer science education program, served as a judge for the Greater KC Science and Engineering Fair as well as the PLTW KC Engineering Design Contest. I also currently serve as a mentor for FIRST robotics team 1939.


Google Scholar ResearchGate arXiv

Unsupervised Contact Learning for Humanoid Estimation and Control

IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2018

Nicholas Rotella, Stefan Schaal, Ludovic Righetti

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An MPC Walking Framework With External Contact Forces

IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2018

Sean Mason, Nicholas Rotella, Stefan Schaal, Ludovic Righetti

link pdf video

Balancing and walking using full dynamics LQR control with contact constraints

IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2016

Sean Mason, Nicholas Rotella, Stefan Schaal, Ludovic Righetti

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Inertial sensor-based humanoid joint state estimation

IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2016

Nicholas Rotella, Sean Mason, Stefan Schaal, Ludovic Righetti

link pdf

Humanoid momentum estimation using sensed contact wrenches

IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots (Humanoids), 2015

Nicholas Rotella, Alexander Herzog, Stefan Schaal, Ludovic Righetti

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Trajectory generation for multi-contact momentum-control

IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots (Humanoids), 2015

Alexander Herzog, Nicholas Rotella, Stefan Schaal, Ludovic Righetti

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Momentum control with hierarchical inverse dynamics on a torque-controlled humanoid

Autonomous Robots (AURO), 2015

Alexander Herzog, Nicholas Rotella, Sean Mason, Felix Grimminger, Stefan Schaal, Ludovic Righetti

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State estimation for a humanoid robot

IEEE/RSJ Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2014

Nicholas Rotella, Michael Bloesch, Ludovic Righetti, Stefan Schaal

link pdf video

Properties of a temporal difference reinforcement learning brain machine interface driven by a simulated motor cortex

International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBC), 2012

Aditya Tarigoppula, Nick Rotella, Joseph T. Francis

link pdf

Recent Posts:

OpenPilot Autonomous Driving Stack

A long while back, I played around with a Panda OBD-II Dongle which is an inexpensive vehicle CAN bus interface designed to perform basic self-driving functionality using only an RGB camera and lightweight processor, both mounted behind the rear view mirror. My goal was to understand’s open-source “OpenPilot” codebase both as a... Read more

The PX4 Drone Control Stack

PX4, along with others such as ArduPilot and the DJI SDK (which is only partially open-source), is one of the most popular full-stack solutions for UAV control. The goal of this post is to document some of the basic setup and use information, mostly for myself to refer to later on when digging deeper into the control architecture. Setting up P... Read more

Honeyballs (Struffoli) Recipe

It’s quite a while since I last posted anything, so what better way to break the silence than by documenting one of my favorite Italian-American treats - struffoli, or as we southern Italians displaced a few thousand miles and several generations endearingly call them, honeyballs. It wasn’t my intent to use this blog for personal posts, however... Read more

About This Site

I’ve already fallen waaaaay behind what I was planning in terms of publishing technical posts on robotics, so instead I’m going to make a much easier post so that I actually get something out there. It feels like half the battle of having a blog is getting in the habit of posting regularly, especially on days like today when scrambling to finis... Read more

First Steps with python + Qt + OpenGL

In this tutorial, we’ll be writing a small python script which renders a cube in a GUI with a slider to control its rotation. This will be based on other tutorials, namely this one but with a bit more detail to explain the process and OpenGL concepts in general. You can download the full script here. Setup PyQt4 PyOpenGL ... Read more